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When Sons Of Anarchy debuted back in 2008, one of the appeals of the show was that it offered a familiar anti-hero protagonist, but one who potentially had the capacity to change for the better. Tony Soprano was never going to wise-up and quit the mafia that had brought him so much material gain, but Jax Teller? He had ambitions, and the discovery of his dead father’s journal suggested those visions might actually become a reality. Whereas other shows paid lip-service to the idea of redemption, Sons seemed to actually embrace the concept, using the tension between the ideals Jax was striving for, and the brutal reality that stood in the way of achieving those ideals, to drive the action. It didn’t always work, but for a long time, there was a sense that things might actually get better; or, at the very least, that there was something worth fighting for beyond money, power, and pussy.

Not so much anymore. And while it’s sad to see Jax finally give up his dreams of basic decency, it’s an acknowledgement that’s been a long time in coming. Somewhere around season three or four, the dream of going legit became less an inspiration, and more a plot checklist that no one was particularly interested in; as it became increasingly clear that Kurt Sutter and his writers were more invested in wallowing in the muck than in ever climbing out onto dry land, all of those speeches about wanting to be a good man, wanting to build a future for his sons, wanting to support Tara in the career she deserved, felt more and more hollow. And not in an effectively dramatic way, either. Occasionally someone would call Jax on his hypocrisy, but the charges never really stuck, because no one’s heart was in it. To truly turn his back on crime for good and for all would’ve required Jax to give up on Charming and SAMCRO, and that just wasn’t possible. It’s like the castaways ever getting off Gilligan’s island. They can’t. I mean, the island gets top billing.

In “Toil And Till,” we learn for the first time the true scope of Jax’s plans to avenge Tara’s death, and they are not pretty; there is no attempt to soften his rage, or what he’s willing to do to satisfy it. It’s horrifying, but it’s also a kind of relief. Where the premiere was a bit muddy, here we have focus: The torture and murder of the gang-member at the end of last week’s episode wasn’t the end of a story, but the start of one. Jax is going to destroy Lin’s gang from the ground up, and when Lin turns to him for help, Jax plans to ask him which member of Lin’s inner circle Lin most wants protected. Whomever Lin names, Jax is going to kill first. Then he’ll kill everyone else but Lin. Then he’ll torture Lin to death.

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That’s… not a good-guy plan. Not even when you factor in the fact that Jax (thanks to Gemma) believes that Lin is responsible for Tara’s death. It’s understandable that he’s out of his mind with grief and fury, but this is gangster bullshit he’s trying to pull, and the fact that he’s fully committed to it (and that no one else in the club apparently has any problem with his plan) is about as definitive a statement as you can make about where he falls on the “decency”/”wallowing in the mud” line. And in case that wasn’t enough, we also see Jax murder a pair of guys who were supposed to be on his side; two dudes Jerry from the Indian Hills branch of the Sons hired to serve as muscle for Jax’s raid on one of Lin’s drugs-for-guns deals. The killing is to set up the two dudes (a pair of genial stoner bros) as patsies that will keep Lin’s attention off SAMCRO. This plan may hit a stumbling block in the shape of Jerry, who turns out to be much closer to one of the dead bros than he initially let on (the dead guy is wearing dog tags, and Jerry’s reaction to his murder is more intense than his casual “Oh, I found them through a whore” comment from earlier would’ve suggested); Jerry finds one of the shotguns used during the earlier raid at the crime scene, and it’s not that hard to put together that Jax’s vengeance quest does give a damn for the well-being of anyone outside his immediate circle.

So that’s exciting. On the whole, “Toil And Till” represents a step up from “Black Widower:” there’s a solid action set-piece, some nicely subtle character work, and, maybe most importantly, a clear sense of purpose. Last week didn’t come completely into focus until we realized how Gemma was covering Tara’s death. This week uses that focus and runs with it. Now we have a through-line: Jax’s obsession with punishing those he believes responsible for his wife’s murder, and the knowledge that sooner or later, the real truth will have to come out. There’s tension on multiple fronts—a desire to see if Jax can pull off his scheme (even if it’s evil), the possibility that his plans could fall apart at any second, and a whole town full of apparent wild cards that could muck things up, or reveal the truth. Neither Gemma nor Juice are particularly stable (although Gemma’s putting up a good show; it seems very likely that she’s going to feel like she’s won everything right before it’s all taken away forever), and Unser is being his old, plodding self. The new sheriff might figure something out (ha, I kid), Nero’s getting antsy, and hell, even Wendy might put skull and meat fork together.

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There’s only one montage in the episode, near the end, and it’s a good one; the standard opening sequence of characters getting up and drinking coffee and looking groggy is done without any musical accompaniment, and the effect is striking. Everyone seems a little lost, a little abandoned. For once, the character moments aren’t overwhelmed by the soundtrack. There’s an intimacy that runs through several scenes, and the sense of history that colors nearly every character exchange is allowed a chance to settle in without being too overplayed. On the rare occasion when two people who haven’t spent much time together hang out for a bit—like when Nero drives Wendy to Abel’s new school—offer surprising dividends. For once, the bulk of the conversation isn’t taken up with establishing some new iteration of meaningless gang politics. Everyone gets to be a bit of a person for a while. It’s nice.

So: The season has an apparent direction, Jax is on the warpath, and everything is about to get a lot worse for nearly everyone. The knowledge that this ride will be the last for SAMCRO (or at least this iteration of the group) gives more weight to the various crises looming over the horizon. It’s technically possible that this will all fall apart, that Jax will walk away untouched, that Gemma will live to lie another day, but the odds are against it. Whereas earlier years guaranteed the survival of certain central figures, that certainty is gone. There’s no more need to stall anymore. Which is good for us, and good for the show (creatively speaking), but not much good for anyone who lives in Charming.

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Stray observations:

  • The new sheriff seems competent. Let’s see how long that lasts.
  • Happy wearing a biohazard suit and pushing around a barrel with a corpse inside has to be a Breaking Bad reference, right? (The gang-member’s head winding up in a box labeled “Fortune Cookies” is pure Sons, though.)
  • Burowski! “I enjoy when I hear a rapist share a good law enforcement joke.” (He’s being sarcastic.)
  • The chat with Wendy and Nero in the car really was nice. Wendy’s character has been developing in fits and starts ever since she returned to the show, largely because the writers kept using her as an antagonist to get in Tara’s way, without bothering to come up with much justification beyond “She’s a mom.” But with Tara gone, Wendy has a chance to be more than just a plot complication, and she has potential. And Nero is as great as ever.
  • “He needed it. Closure.” Oh Gemma, you are the worst.

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